Lifestyles and Traditions The Making of Oki Islands Culture

How was the diverse culture of the Oki Islands born? How was it passed down through generations?
This section introduces the building blocks of the history and culture of the islands—obsidian, exile, and kitamaebune trading ships.

Mining Obsidian

Obsidian is one of the representative rocks of the Oki Islands. It was used as a material for stone tools from the Paleolithic Age.

Obsidian stone tools

Due to regional differences in the minor components of obsidian, chemical analysis allows us to pinpoint the place where it was mined. From this, we know that although over 70 obsidian localities have been confirmed across Japan, the Oki Islands are one of only six places (and the only one in the Chūgoku region) that yield resources of high enough quality to be used for stone tools.

Oki obsidian was traded mainly in the Chugoku region, but also as far north as Niigata Prefecture and east to Shikoku Island, as early as 30 thousand years ago. This shows that Oki obsidian was highly valued for its quality, and seen as a necessary resource for people in prehistoric times.

Map of excavation sites with Oki obsidian

Looking at the distribution of sites where Oki obsidian has been found, we can see the route along which people exchanged goods and culture. In the ages that follow, this route emerges time and time again, marking a road travelled by people and their customs.

Islands of Exile

The Oki Islands were established as a place of exile in 724. Petty criminals were banished to the islands from the mid-Edo Period (1603–1867), but before that, the exiles sent here included Japanese emperors, aristocrats, and other important officials convicted of political crimes.

The reason for choosing the Oki Islands as a place of exile was not only their remote location, far away from the capital, but also the high quality of life they offer. Aristocrats and emperors could not be sent to a place where they would suffer from hunger and other hardships, so these islands with abundant produce and a rich history going back to the mining of obsidian were seen as a perfect fit.

Among the prominent people exiled to the Oki Islands were Emperors Go-Toba and Go-Daigo, who both lost struggles for political power in the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), as well as the 9th-century poet Ono-no-Takamura.

Emperor Go-Toba
Emperor Go-Daigo

Port of Call for Kitamaebune Trading Ships

From the mid-Edo Period (1603–1867) to the end of the 19th century, the Oki Islands prospered as a port of call for the kitamaebune trading ships.
Kitamaebune is the name of the ships that travelled back and forth from Osaka and the Seto Inland Sea to Hokkaido, trading along the way at the various ports of call.

Model of a kitamaebune trading ship

Kitamaebune trading ships began visiting the Oki Islands more frequently from the mid-18th century, as development in the Osaka textile industry allowed the production of sturdier sails from 1785. The sails produced before that were too weak to withstand strong winds, which made sea travel possible only along small distances close to the coast.
Because of this, a round trip between Osaka and Hokkaido could be completed only once a year. However, ever since more sturdy sails became available, a farther sea route leading through Shimonoseki, the Oki Islands, and Sado Island was established, with the Oki Islands serving as a port of call and supply base. This change enabled kitamaebune trading ships to complete two round trips in a year. There were some years when more than 4,500 of these boats stayed in the ports of the Oki Islands.

The route of kitamaebune trading ships

In addition to goods, kitamaebune trading ships brought to the islands folk songs from all over Japan. The Oki Islands are sometimes called a treasury of folk songs. Among the most representative passed down to this day are Oki Shigesa-bushi, an Obon festival song from Kashiwazaki City in Niigata Prefecture, and Dossari-bushi, which was sung when loading cargo on ships.

During the era of kitamaebune trading ships, the Oki Islands flourished and became a developed region that gathered information and goods. Lafcadio Hearn, who visited the islands during the Meiji Period (1868–1912), famously noted in his writings how surprised he was to see western food served in a restaurant in the Saigō area (Dōgo Island).